By Sherry Frank
In the early 1980s, Yehudah Rosenman, of blessed memory, was the director of the American Jewish Committee’s department of Jewish communal affairs. At a staff retreat he challenged us to reach out to young Jewish adults.
Citing AJC’s research, he noted that young Jews were obtaining college and advanced university degrees disproportionately to their demographics. These well-educated and mobile young adults would easily identify with the intellectually stimulating and diverse agenda of AJC.
This challenge resonated with me, and I began developing a list of the adult children of our leadership. From the beginning of this outreach, our members were totally engaged with this initiative. Members hosted events in their homes and businesses, spoke at programs, and generously supported our efforts. Interested young leaders from across the community quickly joined our growing list and attended programs.
We began with seasonal three-part series addressing topics reflective of the AJC agenda. One of the early series covered “Pro Choice: Where Do You Stand?” “Israel and the Palestinians” and “What Makes a Good Jew?”; another tackled “Separation of Church and State: What’s It All About?” “Investments for Young Professionals” and “Extremism-Terrorist Groups on the Rise or Decline?”
While some ideas were generated by the participants, most of the activity was staff-directed.
These activities were described as follows in one of the program brochures: “In response to the growing number of young Jewish adults in our city, the Atlanta Chapter is pleased to offer innovative programming, opportunities for networking, and exposure to the dynamics of Atlanta and its movers and shakers. This combination, rooted in excellence, is the hallmark of the American Jewish Committee.”
During the years that Steve Selig was Atlanta Chapter president, from 1987 to 1989, the numbers grew from 50 to 300. It soon became clear to staff and participants that a more formal structure was needed.
The programs initially referred to this group as View Points and then Young Professionals. From an initial program committee, a steering committee was created. Elaine Alexander was the Atlanta Chapter president at the time, and she, along with Chuck Wolf, the board liaison to this emerging young group, gave guidance and leadership to what would soon be called ACCESS.
I remember fondly the hours Mindy Selig Shoulberg spent at the AJC office to enter her address book into our data system. These were the days before most of today’s computer technology, and her address book was a key way we expanded our list of potential members. Shula Bahat, who was AJC’s associate director and head of the leadership development department, was most supportive of this pioneering initiative of the Atlanta Chapter.
In early 1990, T.J. Bierman and Steve Klorfein volunteered to serve as the first co-chairs of this new steering committee. Elise Eplan, Joel Arogeti and Beth Paradies served as the first program co-chairs. At their meeting on Nov. 20, 1990, an item on the agenda was “Establish Young Professionals own identity with a new name, logo and stationery.”
“We want to ACCESS young people into the mainstream of AJC,” Steve Klorfein said in an article in the Atlanta Jewish Times on Feb. 15, 1991. This name created a special identity for the group, and from its beginning, it enabled young Jews to access the Jewish and general community through the work of AJC.
There were several defining moments for ACCESS. One was the idea of hosting a program focusing on Jewish entrepreneurship. On a hot summer evening in July 1990, 150 young adults were entertained and inspired by the first of what would become an exceptionally successful annual program. At the rooftop offices of advertising moguls Joel Babbit and Joey Reiman, “A View From the Penthouse: The Jewish Entrepreneurial Spirit” featured Chuck Wolf, Buck Goldstein, Steve Selig, Babbit and Reiman.
This annual program became the fall paid-up membership event and started the year off with a bang for ACCESS. Every major Jewish entrepreneur was featured over the years. Creative spins on this event focused on young entrepreneurs, family businesses, women, and programs that were industry-specific, such as entertainment and real estate.
For the 10th anniversary of ACCESS, the original entrepreneurs entertained once again. Membership had grown to 1,000.
AJC’s agenda has been central to ACCESS over these 25 years. In the areas of the security of Israel and the battle against anti-Semitism and extremism, ACCESS members held programs to learn about the changing issues and, in more recent years, to meet with consuls general in Atlanta to advocate on them.
The Dinners With Diplomats series prepares ACCESS members to be articulate spokespeople for the Jewish community. Members have participated in numerous AJC-sponsored trips abroad to continue the agency’s important work in global advocacy.
In keeping with the Atlanta Chapter’s long record of achievement in intergroup relations, ACCESS members have been active in the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition. Members have been leaders in the coalition’s Marvin Goldstein Project Understanding Black-Jewish Young Leadership Retreat, the biennial seders and various other programs through the years. ACCESS also has hosted an Asian-Jewish seder and programs on diversity in the workplace and has worked with the Hispanic and Asian communities.
Keeping young Jews informed and involved in the community has always been a priority of the Atlanta Chapter and its work with ACCESS. In addition to countless forums with community rabbis and discussions related to Jewish identity and family issues, in the early years I often felt as if we were sponsoring events that could easily be found in a synagogue adult education program.
These events included how to run a seder and how to prepare Shabbat and holiday meals. We ran a series titled “Shabbat Rocks” with services and dinners at many synagogues. Atlanta Chapter members hosted ACCESS members for Shabbat dinners and made sure they all had homes to go to for Passover seders. My sweetest memories were hosting the steering committee members in my sukkah for a Shabbat dinner and sing-along.
As the years passed, the participants went from being single to engaged and from being married to having children.
In its 10th year, AJC Executive Director David Harris was quoted in an article about ACCESS in the Atlanta Jewish Times: “ACCESS is terrific. It’s been a pace setter within the national American Jewish Committee structure for your leadership development and programming.”
In recent years the national organization took the name, and all chapter young adult groups are now called ACCESS. AJC’s major national meeting, the Global Forum, is now preceded by a national meeting of ACCESS groups, and our own Atlanta leaders are in top roles at this gathering of over 500 young adults.
ACCESS members participated in the fundraising efforts of AJC from its early years. They hosted an annual Chai Society Party and several silent auctions. With creative themes, they attracted large crowds and new donors. For their 10th-anniversary party, they held a carnival night at United Distributors. ACCESS members often served as co-chairs of the Selig Distinguished Service Award Dinner, and their leadership is always recognized at the dinner. Plans are being carried out for a 25th-anniversary campaign for AJC and the ACCESS Endowment Fund.
Leadership is essential for all groups, and ACCESS leaders have a proud record of achievement. Three ACCESS leaders, Kent Alexander, Elise Eplan and Beth Paradies, have served as Atlanta Chapter presidents. ACCESS members serve in many leadership roles in AJC and throughout our Jewish and civic communities. I remember how proud we were to learn that Leslie Blonder Isenberg was elected to serve on the board of the Breman Jewish Home. We were truly grooming future leaders for AJC and the Jewish community at large.
ACCESS members from the beginning were integrated into all aspects of the Atlanta Chapter, serving on the board and various committees. They were active participants in the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and still host a night at the festival each year. Through the years, mentor programs were initiated, and chapter members were involved and supportive of ACCESS projects and programs.
When I retired in 2006, I was asked if donors were to contribute to one program in my honor, what AJC program would I choose. I selected ACCESS because I am so proud of the continuing strength and achievement of these young adults and AJC’s commitment to invest time, talent and resources into the leadership development of our young adults.
Our Jewish community is stronger because of ACCESS, and our future will continue to be enhanced through the efforts of future leaders knowledgeable about, engaged in and dedicated to the Jewish community.
I look forward to drinking a special “Sherry Shot” at the ACCESS 25th Anniversary Celebration on April 18. The event is open to the public, and I look forward to greeting many friends as we acknowledge this wonderful milestone.
Sherry Frank was the longtime director of AJC’s Atlanta Chapter, including the period when ACCESS began.